Flattening The Mental Health Curve: 7 Practical Tips
Updated: Apr 11, 2020
There is no shortage of information circulating about how to stay physically safe throughout the coronavirus pandemic. The central concept is that the best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to the virus in the first place.
“Flattening the curve” is a catchphrase popularized during the pandemic and refers to slowing the rate at which people are infected with the virus, and the practices recommended to do so.
Our government, public health agencies and healthcare systems are scrambling to minimize the impact of Coronoavirus on human life, but this has been an uphill battle.
As the days of this pandemic turn into weeks, it is becoming increasingly evident that the next health crisis our country we will have to contend with is a mental health one. Our collective fortitude is being tested by the unprecedented circumstances we find ourselves in.
Many are facing financial insecurity as people lose their jobs and businesses close. Healthcare workers are traumatized daily as they come face-to-face with the virus, too often without proper support and protective equipment. Other non-medical essential workers continue to serve their communities and families but face increased risk of exposure in their workplaces too. Empty shelves at the supermarket and unavailability of household essentials are a sobering reminder of just how much this virus is impacting our world. People are struggling to find a sense of connection as we embrace physical distancing guidelines. And while we know that this all will pass, no one knows WHEN.
All of these circumstances can pose a real threat to the mental stability of any of us, those with and without a preexisting mental health diagnosis. There has already been a rise in domestic violence and child abuse cases in the face of the pandemic, and rates of drug and alcohol abuse and other mental health issues are expected to follow suit.
Now is the time to start proactively flattening the mental health curve; that is, reducing the rate at which people suffer serious mental health problems as a result of this pandemic. Just as general healthcare systems have become overwhelmed with Coronavirus cases, especially in hard-hit states like NewYork, the mental healthcare system can easily become overwhelmed too if we don’t put preventative measures in place now. We all have a role to play in flattening the mental health curve. Here are my tips to protect and optimize your mental health now.
1. Stay Safe
Of course, it is imperative that we follow guidelines meant to prevent infection and keep us physically healthy. As a reminder, those guidelines include to stay at home as much as possible, frequent handwashing, physical distancing, standing at least 6 feet away from others, and now the CDC’s newest guidelines to wear a cloth face covering in public. If you need a refresher on these general guidelines check out my previous blog post here and the CDC’s website here.
2. Stay Healthy
It is tempting to allow the unusual circumstances we find ourselves in to convince us to abandon healthy habits. But it is essential now, more than ever, that we keep our bodies functioning optimally. If your physical health suffers, your mental health will certainly suffer as well. Eat a healthy and balanced diet, get 8 hours of sleep nightly, exercise regularly, spend some time in the sun and fresh air daily, avoid drugs and excessive alcohol.
Avoid the urge to use quarantine as an excuse to stay up until 4 am bingeing on Netflix, Doritos, and wine.
Your mental and physical health are counting on you!
3. Stay Connected
Staying physically distanced from others doesn’t mean you must be socially isolated. Find new and safe ways to connect with family and friends through phone calls, video chats, virtual parties, and more. Call to check on loved ones. Take advantage of the safe ways people are connecting with social media, online activities, virtual church services, etc. Get creative and stay connected to people who support and lift you up, while still keeping safety a priority.
4. Stay Structured
One of the most overlooked challenges of these times, is the loss of our routines. Normal routines like getting up, dressed, and off to work at the same time everyday give our days structure and purpose. Lack of structure and routine can make our lives feel chaotic, and a lack of a set goal to work toward can make things feel monotonous and pointless. Even for those of us who still go to work everyday as essential personnel, our after work routines no longer include the same social and recreational activities they once did, and it can be easy to spend the evenings aimlessly. Going for too long in this state allows symptoms of depression and anxiety to set in.
Combat this by setting goals and establishing routines.
Set a goal, big or small, and work toward it daily to provide a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Come up with a daily routine to follow to instill structure and stability into your days.
Choose a set time to wake up and go to bed everyday, and stick with it. Choose at least one thing you want to accomplish for the day and get it done. Laying around all day eating Cheetos and filling your mind with an endless barrage of social media and news will wreak havoc on your mental health.
5. Stay Calm
Proactively come up with a list of positive coping strategies — things you know help you feel better when things are tough. This may include prayer, music, taking a walk, gratitude journaling (click here to learn how), deep breathing exercises, calling a friend, listening to an inspirational message or sermon, reading, taking a bubble bath, coloring, thought exercises (click here for more on this), etc. Self-help apps such as Calm and Headspace provide meditation and other positive coping exercises as well.
As long as it helps you feel better and does not harm you in the longterm (like for example, overeating, drugs, overindulging in alcohol), then do it often!
When you are feeling stressed (or even when you’re not), do something from your list of strategies and start feeling better. Having a list of positive coping strategies can provide a sense of direction when things are difficult and help us get through these times.
6. Stay Positive
Your brain will naturally search for and focus on the negatives in this situation, and sink your mood with it.
Remember that negative feelings like fear, worry, and sadness are normal at times, but we do not have to stay stuck in those feelings indefinitely.
Challenge yourself to look for the positives. People are coming together to support and help each other. And we all have an amazing opportunity for innovation, creativity and personal growth in these challenging times. I am inspired by the ways businesses and organizations are pivoting to serve their communities in new ways while prioritizing safety. I personally have found a re-invigorated sense of purpose in supporting my patients, readers, and colleagues in their mental health journeys through this pandemic. Focusing on the positives and growth opportunities, instead of the negatives and burdens, can have an amazing impact on our mental well-being. What positives and opportunities for growth can you see coming from this situation?
7. Stay Willing To Seek Help And Support.
If you need additional mental health support, do not hesitate to seek it out, sooner rather than later.
If you do not already have a psychiatrist or therapist, a virtual visit with your primary care doctor may be a good first step in addressing depression or anxiety symptoms that require medication. And of course, you can and should seek the more specialized help of a psychiatrist or therapist if needed. Mental health services are well-suited to visits by video or phone. And mental health professionals across the country are organizing to address the increased need for mental health services in light of the pandemic. I have included a few resources below, though are many options. If you have insurance, consider contacting them too for a list of mental health professionals in you area. Suicide hotlines and local emergency services remain available for those with urgent mental health concerns including suicidal thoughts or actions.
coronavirusonlinetherapy.com is a new website dedicated to providing free and reduced cost therapy to frontline workers including medical professionals, grocery store workers, and other essential personnel.
physicianmentalhealth.com is a new state-by-state directory of Psychiatrists across the nation offering mental health services via Telehealth. The site was compiled to help frontline physicians easily find Psychiatrists, but the psychiatrists listed offer services to non-physicians as well.
pyschologytoday.com has been in existence for years and allows you to search for various types of mental health professionals by speciality, location, etc.
suicidepreventionlifeline.org is the website for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, which can also be reached by phone at 1-800-273-8355
Let’s be proactive in protecting our mental health and flatten the mental health curve together.
We’ve got this,
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